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America is Defined by the Fight to Reaffirm the Promise of Equality

Last updated on October 8, 2020

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C in 1963. (National Archives)

Remember, let’s be polite; let’s be respectful, but most of all, let’s be outspoken.

On July 4th, 1776, the Founding Fathers scribed the Declaration of Independence. The most notable line within the preamble is “All men are created equal.” Now when the Founding Fathers wrote this momentous line, it was evident they did not treat all men as equals.

Thomas Jefferson, who was instrumental in the writing of the Declaration, owned hundreds of slaves.

According to Monticello, “He (Jefferson) inherited 175 enslaved people: about 40 from the estate of his father, Peter Jefferson, in 1764, and 135 from his father-in-law, John Wayles, in 1774. Jefferson purchased fewer than twenty slaves in his lifetime.”

To add insult to injury, Jefferson was a widely known hypocrite on the issue of slavery. He called slavery the “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” even though he only freed seven out of the hundreds of slaves he owned. Also according to Monticello, there was a widely disputed controversy as to whether or not Jefferson fathered children with one of his own slaves, Sally Hemings.

Needless to say, these particular actions were morally egregious, but they do not invalidate the phrase, “All men are created equal.”

Throughout the course of US history, the fight for freedom has been a never-ending and grueling endeavor. At the time of this nation’s birth, the Founding Fathers spoke out against the issue of slavery.

For example, President John Adams said, “Slavery is a foul contagion in the human character.” Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who helped Jefferson in writing the Declaration said, “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature.” In policy, the Founding Fathers pushed the passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 which banned slavery in new territories. In 1780, Pennsylvania became the first of many states to abolish slavery.

Another important figure was Fredrick Douglass who was a literate former slave and an amazing orator. In a speech titled “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” he said, “The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too great enough to give frame to a great age.”

Douglass believed in the fundamental principles of the Declaration but called Americans hypocritical in celebrating Independence day while owning another person.

The nation later entered a Civil war that caused the death of 620,000 soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers marched into battle to abolish slavery and to preserve the union.

President Lincoln said in his historical Gettysburg address, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

When the Union defeated the Confederacy, four million black people became former slaves with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. The battle for the freedom of man achieved a momentous victory.

However, black people were still oppressed. In 1896, the infamous Plessy V. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling implemented racial segregation and introduced the term “separate but equal.” Black codes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and Jim crow laws all usurped the freedom of black people. Furthermore, the rise of the KKK led to legalized terrorism against black people. Practices like redlining, restrictions on black education, and sharecropping became more common.

Despite this, black people fought back against a system of oppression. In 1909, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) tried to end segregation and achieve equal education. Prominent leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Debois became well-respected leaders within the fight for the freedom of man.

In an amazing feat, the “poverty rate among blacks fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent by 1960″ while under Jim Crow laws. This lead to the growth of the black middle class and the economic success of a few black people. Madame C.J. Walker became the first black female millionaire in US history through her hair care products. Even though her parents were slaves, she made the extraordinary accomplishment of overcoming a system of oppression by achieving economic success of vast proportions.

Later, the Civil Rights movement became one of the most instrumental elements for the freedom of blacks. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott fought against the segregation laws in Alabama.

Leading the movement was Martin Luther King Jr. In front of the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial, the famed civil rights leader gave his earth-shattering speech titled, “I have a Dream.” Within it, he proclaimed,

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

MLK Jr. in his “I have a Dream” speech

With this pivotal speech, the battle for freedom gained another victory. The 1954 Brown V. Board of Education ruled that segregation within public schools was unconstitutional. In 1966, Robert C. Weaver became the first black presidential cabinet member and the first Housing and Urban Development secretary. In 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court Justice. To this day, many black people have achieved a social, financial, or political status that would have been nearly impossible fifty years ago.

In 2001, Robert L. Johnson became the first black billionaire. In 2009, Barack Obama became the first black US President. In the 2008 presidential election, Obama decimated John McCain and then beat Mitt Romney in 2012. Under the Obama administration, Eric Holder became the first black Attorney General. Currently, black Senators like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are well-known and influential. To add on, Senator Harris will most likely become Biden’s running mate in the 2020 election.

The fundamental truth about the history of this nation is that the promissory note Jefferson wrote two hundred years ago set a foundation for the battle for freedom.

Without a doubt, slavery was the darkest period of time in US history. When slavery was abolished, racism was still rampant and Jim Crow laws oppressed millions. However, the story of America is not defined by the atrocities of its past, but its attempt to overcome them. It is the story of Rosa Park’s tenacity that sparks inspiration in millions. It is the powerful description of Martin Luther King Junior’s dream that will instill motivation in the leaders of tomorrow.

Jefferson understood that the phrase, “All men are created equal” did not apply to his time or a time in the distant future. However, he believed that the formation of this nation would be based on the centralizing principle that all men are created equal.

In the grand scheme of things, the strength of this Republic comes from the continuing effort to assert every person deserves the same rights regardless of any identity.

Remember, let’s be polite; let’s be respectful, but most of all, let’s be outspoken.

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